Schönberg’s uncharacteristic daintiness

Schönberg’s evolution from a late-Romantic, post-Wagnerian composer to the initiator of twelve-tone music happened over a period of well over a decade, in a few stages, with certain works acting as “landmarks,” delineating the various developments in his tonal writing. One of these works is the first chamber symphony, Op. 9. Published as a work in E major, it hardly has any semblance of being in E major. Although it is not atonal, its tonality shifts rapidly and fluently, creating a mass of recognizable combinations of consonances and dissonances moving in every possible direction and taking every possible diversion. Hence, it is hard to call it a “tonal” work. The work that followed, the masterful second string quartet with soprano accompaniment, Op. 10, begins as a post-Wagnerian tonal work but ends in atonality. The last movement, with elements slightly similar to modernist music being written in Paris at the same time, is an example of Schönberg’s free atonality that preceded the systematic and organized twelve-tone music for which he is best known. The work I discuss this week, the Six Little Piano Pieces, Op. 19, dates from 1913, five years after the second string quartet, and is likewise a freely atonal work. 

Schönberg is hardly known as a sparing or minimalistic composer. On the contrary, he didn’t shy away from intrepid and fervent clashes of harmony and expression. Given the tribulations of his personal life, both before and after he went into exile, his music often takes a bitter and lugubrious tone. He was inextricably tied to the classical tradition at the same time that he turned against its core tenet, and we often hear classical rhythmic gestures transmogrified into alien harmonic and melodic figures (not unlike the way in which some modernist painters distorted the proportions of the human body, such as Modigliani or Bacon.) 

The Six Little Pieces, however, are entirely different in character. Lasting around five minutes, the six pieces possess all that is usually missing from other works of Schönberg. They are largely soft, elegant, and most significantly, “economically” written. Nowhere in this short work is an excess of notes to be found. In fact, some movements, like the last, are striking in their succinctness. In this way, they are a lot closer in character to Schönberg’s follower Webern, who is known for his whittled-down style of composition. But whereas Webern wrote irksomely futuristic music, the Six Little Pieces have many attributes of pre-Romantic music. Right from the beginning of the first piece, we hear the composer harking back to the genteel dance style of the 18th century. Perhaps he is alluding in a tangential way to a minuet of Haydn or Mozart? Later in the work, as the classical rhythmic elements disappear, we are still left with gestures of articulation reminiscent of that same period. 

These gestures, and the sparse way in which the work is notated, make for a transparency that is at times lacking in 20th-century music. Whereas works by Schönberg’s contemporaries and even by Schönberg himself may seem at times to be opaque and impenetrable, the Six Little Pieces truly invite us to look into the “vitrine” of the music and see its different components and inner workings, which, along with its convenient duration, is a reason why it has become a favorite of many pianists, including some who are skeptical of non-tonal music. 

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